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Robert Macfarlane – The Old Ways: A Journey On Foot – Scottish Review of Books
by SRB

Robert Macfarlane – The Old Ways: A Journey On Foot

October 1, 2012 | by SRB

A gannet suspended in rock. An invisible causeway shrouded in mist. A basement lined with catalogued boxes filled with eccentric objects. Rituals, signs, mysteries. Such are the protagonists of Robert Macfarlane’s latest book, in which he is inspired by a spectral host of literary wayfarers and coincidental characters whilst rediscovering often forgotten, ancient paths for his contemporary readers. 

Macfarlane’s book comes in the wake of a variety of likeminded pieces: Geoff Nicholson’s The Lost Art of Walking, Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust and A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Will Self’s Psychogeography and most recently Jennifer Wallace’s poetry and prose selection It Can Be Solved by Walking. Consider them as guides to putting one foot in front of the other, and our understanding of this movement through a matrix of time, space and imagination, and you join Macfarlane on his walk. Each writer approaches psychogeography – Debord’s theory of geography’s effect on our senses – in different ways. They each appreciate, however, Macfarlane’s supposition that “landscape has long offered us keen ways of figuring ourselves to ourselves”. 

Macfarlane’s book is divided into four parts, subtitled, in keeping with his spare and elegiac style, with single words – ‘Ice’, ‘Ghost’, ‘Print’, ‘Peat’. These subtitles are as elusive as Macfarlane’s quarry – the footprints of the past that are revealed only as ghosts along the way. ‘The Old Ways’ is a study of haunting, or the haunted nature of memory, where, via W. H. Hudson, Macfarlane notices “ghost gulls or spirit birds that merely ‘lived in or were passing through the world’”, and recognises that, on the way, we exist in a space of transition. Macfarlane’s wayfaring is an act of “border crossing” – borders of time and memory, as well as the physical borders of land and sea. Macfarlane encourages a fresh-seeing approach, such as his inverted map of Britain that recognises the ocean ways as uniting a wider network – and thus converting notions of highland wildernesses into areas of flux through which we travel. Equally, his passage along the Broomway, a causeway off the Essex coast, conjures the visible out of the invisible, the legible out of the illegible. We are surrounded, suggests Macfarlane, not by barriers, but by (often elusive) portals.  

So, a book clamouring with ghosts – or rather, a book that recognises that human experience is made up of a limitless, unknowable flurry of ghosts that know no borders, or recognise borders we have misrecognised. Macfarlane, through his love of poet Edward Thomas – one of the principle spectral literary influences in Macfarlane’s book -, would have these paths and borders “folded together”, a palimpsest of time visible, if one were to look, along the way. Time, for Macfarlane, moves back and forth like the tide; uncovers, for example, 5000-year-old footprints that the reader may walk beside. The undulation of time in Macfarlane’s book allows these footprints to become our footprints, and the ‘old ways’ he follows to take on deep, questing significance. Paths meander “oddly, or perhaps time compressed”; when he walks, it is “as if time had pleated back on itself”. The ancient Icknield Way, for example, is “not like a two-dimensional track but part of a greater manifold, looping and weaving in time even as it appeared to run singularly onwards in space”. Macfarlane is determined for walking to be as academic an experience as it is physical, looped and transgressive despite, perhaps, its basic forward motion.

How, then, as readers, can we follow these strange traces “between the conceptual, the spectral and the personal”? Macfarlane encourages his readers to readjust their notions – of time and space, particularly – and reenvisage, as Walter Benjamin did before us, our lives as a map, and to consider our progress through life “an act of biogeography”. For Macfarlane, the contours of the land offer up aids, or symbols, to help unravel existential questions, or at least to address them. Through England, Scotland, Wales, and further afield – to Palestine, Spain – the path becomes a mirror, and for Macfarlane, wayfaring elicits questions from the elegant codex of the path, with which one is somehow bound. 

This process of walking as mirroring is revealed by Macfarlane in various ways: through his strong grasp of etymology – families of words and his journeys through them; his recognition of spirits, literary and more quotidian; and the sense of spirituality that Macfarlane is able to gain from the psychogeographical. 

Clearly, the physicality of the path is not necessarily, for Macfarlane, the way itself – but the arching form of time (and the ghosts it holds in its matrix) that he encounters along the way. This, in turn, in its very immateriality, gives Macfarlane clues as to what the path could represent: namely a quest, or question. The manner in which Macfarlane presents his findings is both erudite and eccentric. By focusing on what seems far-flung, even unreachable, Macfarlane encounters surfaces and spaces that are “overwhelmingly legible”. These are ways where the traces of others’ passing tease with “disconnection, discrepancy and unsettledness”, where we read “ghosts, dark doubles, and deep forests in which paths peter out”. The liminal space of psychogeography explored by Macfarlane, whilst being quietly confident in its assessment of literary antecedents, embraces a very human sense of questioning, a secular reading of faith. This space – reflecting the otherness of self when confronted with the memory of people within their environment – is found to be in constant flux and transition.  

  Macfarlane’s lilting prose affords the reader much entertainment along the way. His exacting imagery – the grouse with a “drag-queen slur of red” above its eye – personifies the landscape vigorously, something Macfarlane’s ghosts have been doing for centuries. In this sense, too, ‘The Old Ways’ is an extremely agreeable book, one the TLS suggested was startling for the “bristlingness” of its prose. But also perhaps more mysteriously startling: for its reading of the liminality hovering on the edge of recorded texts, and the text legible in the footprints of human experience.    

Robert Macfarlane exhibits words alongside Scottish artist Andrew Mackenzie’s paintings at Sarah Myerscough Fine Art in London in Silver Beyond the Falls this autumn.

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